Alden Nowlan Keath Fraser - Essay

Keath Fraser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading the body of Alden Nowlan's work one begins to share his acute feeling for place. The ideal landscapes of Roberts and Carman, his literary ancestors, are the ones he avoids and de-mythologizes…. To get beneath a Maritime cliché the poet [at times] brandishes a prudery he recognizes and undercuts a countryside he does not…. As he views it, the Real McCoy resides not in any Platonic folder, the idea of landscape, but in the stab of the river above and below the ice, in winter and in summer. If Beauty exists it arises from a comprehension ubiquitous and therefore poetic, not a romanticized abstraction which excludes pain and coldness…. Individual poems hint that in this world where "Spring is distrusted", "Summer is not a season", and "December is thirteen months long", there can be no harking back to Tantramar for lost experience: any loss boils down simply to the absence of harshness, not to something that creates combustion in the mind. (p. 41)

Because he prides himself on writing of what he knows the threat of piecemeal living seems never distant from his regional world…. Nowlan chronicles himself and others via a milieu where the pain of his own experience contributes to much of his work…. (p. 42)

By and large … Nowlan, like the preacher in "The Young Rector"—fascinated with indigenous spirituality—cannot help but witness that the abject people he intuitively loves "are dead / all they need is someone / to throw dirt over them. / Passionless, stinking, dead." For this writer … both Eden and Tantramar are gone; only his struggle against asceticism and the nitty-gritty remains…. (p. 44)

While reviews of his early work praised Nowlan for the accuracy of his images, they also admonished him for flatness and failure to experiment much with form. A tendency not to whack home more forcefully a poem's potential also came under fire; what his poems of the early sixties needed more of was the expansive yet integral conclusions of his later ones, which exhibit an adroit control. In Under the Ice (1961) …, one discovers him finding his range, adjusting his sights, but shooting erratically nonetheless; even some previous poems are decidedly better than the ones which now describe his middle period. "The Egotist" from The Rose and the Puritan (1958), for example, explores a favourite theme of violence with more sophistication than the later "Bear". The earlier poem clinches its simple but electric statement superbly…. "Bear", on the other hand, lacks as much voltage because its conclusion is bathetic…. (pp. 44-5)

In Under the Ice Nowlan reveals limitations, not because a number of titles read like a rural Who's Who ("Jack Stringer", "Charlie", "Georgie and Fenwick", or "The Flynch Cows"), but because the poems themselves often forfeit neat contours of structure and perception (a notable...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)